NATO needs an open market for innovation. Tech firms can help.

Naomi Hulme

MD Skyral Gov & Company Director

As I watched Jens Stoltenberg’s interview with the BBC‘s Laura Kuenssberg last weekend, I heard a very clear message:

The world has become “much more dangerous, much more unpredictable,” and “much more violent”.

And, given our current news cycle, who could disagree with that?

There appears to be a healthy consensus forming around this simple, sobering idea. Stoltenberg is far from the first person to say as much publicly. Our allies on the continent, especially those on its Eastern frontier, have been ready to highlight the urgency of the global situation.

I’m thinking of policymakers like Estonia’s Kaja Kallas, who predicts war with Russia in a ‘3-5 years’ horizon. Polish, German, and Scandinavian intelligence officials have spoken similarly.

So, facing down such a critical juncture, it’s no surprise that our preparedness is coming under scrutiny. To anticipate conflict is one thing, being able to respond when threats come knocking is another.

Not all signs have been reassuring. During the early stages of the war in Ukraine, one Royal United Services Institute report estimated that the UK had just two weeks worth of munitions at its disposal. Flags like this have partly been the motivation behind NATO ’s ‘New Force’ model, which strives to raise the readiness level of the alliance’s military capabilities one rung higher.

But this ‘readiness gap’ extends into the digital space, too, and the chasm may be even deeper due to the hesitancy of nations when it comes to sharing sensitive technology in the name of ‘sovereignty.’ Questions around data, propriety, and cyber threats can all hamper collective technology adoption, in a way that doesn’t apply to bullets or tanks. It’s no coincidence that the technologies that have transformed the landscape most in recent years – the likes of AI, predictive modelling, and synthetic environments – are also those whose dangers we’re most suspicious of.

Don’t worry, this isn’t an airtight treatise on defence procurement. That’s not the sort of content the LinkedIn blog was meant for.

But we might spend some time pondering among ourselves: what’s causing the disconnect? Why, when our needs seem more and more acute, are our means not keeping pace?

MOD Crown Copyright 2024


Well, for starters, we know that between NATO’s allied member states and technical know-how, innovation is not waning. Across the US, UK, France, Canada, and throughout Europe, world-leading hubs are popping up for the same Emerging and Disruptive Technology areas NATO cares most about. That’s things like space, quantum, biotech, AI, simulation…the list goes on.

As ever, the challenge seems to be getting the right people, with the right ideas, in the right situations to actually go past a proof-of-concept. After all, innovation is more than just that lightbulb moment – it’s the adoption of that idea into the mainstream, too.

For some guidance, we might look to what’s being called for here in the UK. According to an illuminating report by The D Group, the UK could make better use of its innovative potential by cultivating ecosystems that connect academia, policy, and business – big and small.

The central idea was this: how do you free up the UK’s resources so that each party can do what they do best? For governments, this is aligning commercial activity with policy objectives in defence and the labour force. For universities, that’s plumbing world-class research efforts into commercial enterprise. And for SMEs, like Skyral, that means contributing their technical expertise and lightweight model to a network of partnerships with the larger industry players. Through being more collaborative, the UK becomes more competitive.

MOD Crown Copyright 2024.


Naturally, there are a number of systemic obstacles standing in the way of this, so goes the report. But at its heart, this was a call for something simple: greater contact and coordination between the public and private spheres. An age-old problem in public policy.

We’ve seen this paradigm in play beyond defence. From transport infrastructure to vaccine delivery and telecommunications – if there are more touchpoints between the vibrant innovators in the for-profit world and publicly responsible government ministers, we can usually be confident of a higher class of delivery.

But of course, the stakes are rarely higher than they are when it comes to defence.

Jens Stoltenberg’s solemn remarks echo in my ears. And the answer to the echo couldn’t be clearer: We need this same ecosystem approach applied at a larger scale. But of course the next question is: how?

Related posts